My whole life Christmas Eve has been spent at the family home even as all of my siblings and I married, had children and then grandchildren. Even when the weather wasn’t friendly. We all headed to Babcia’s house. It was always a magical and festive time, rushing to dress up, fussing with wrapping gifts prettily in ribbons, loading all the presents in the car and driving to our parent’s home out-of-town. Christmas music would be blaring on the car radio the whole time. One hour for my brood. Other siblings had to drive for four hours or come by air. For the past twenty-two years it’s been just mom’s house but the grooving, festive atmosphere didn’t change.
When I was an only child (for five years, before the next sibling arrived), I was led to believe noises coming from the living-room must be St. Nickolas. One of my parents would disappear momentarily with some excuse and I’d hear paper rustling (purposely). The other parent would act surprised, sharing a contrived secret with me. Hmm. I wonder if that’s St. Nicholas?
I had to wait until we’d all finished eating the special Christmas dinner (Wigilia). Afterwards I was encouraged to check underneath the tree. Surprise! Presents. I was thrilled. One was for mom, one for dad and one for me. Equal opportunity.
In those days, when we were new immigrants to Canada, presents meant necessities such as shoes, boots, stocking, bloomers, other clothing disguised as gifts from Santa. It wasn’t till I went to school that I found out that some Canadian kids, especially a friend in my class(Jackie—an adopted child) got all kinds of frivolous toys as well as clothing. I recall her mentioning “22” presents in all from aunts, uncles, cousins and her parents. I had no relatives so I tried not to be disappointed.
As we grew up, Christmas music always filled the house as we arrived in droves. The scent of a fresh spruce in the living-room, setup just the night before, also welcomed us. Once we’d all left home and after dad died, mom still dressed the tree herself. Some of the old decorations have been broken over the years but some had survived for more than sixty years. It was always moving to see which ones made it for another year as they’ve become more fragile with use.
Mom continued to refuse help in the kitchen (even at 83) although she caved in once in a while just to stop our pestering, agreeing that someone could bring a salad or a dessert. Not much help I know but she insisted on doing it all. “I have a small kitchen,” she’d say, “not enough room for more than one cook.” She DID have a point but then again, she couldn’t stand anyone underfoot while she hustled from stove to counter loading up dishes to be placed on the table. She couldn’t delegate.
Mom was famous for two kinds of perogies (sauerkraut, and potato with cheese). We had turkey and another meat (after we stopped going meatless), fish, pickled herring, various vegetables, potatoes, homemade beets and pickles. Add to that at least three or four desserts: pierniki (traditional Polish cookies made with molasses and honey), shortbread or Eisenhower cookies, a cheesecake and a pie or two. She used to make chrusciki (fried bow tie cookies dusted in icing sugar) but hadn’t for years. Even as our numbers grew, there was always too much food and lots of leftovers to share.
By the time dessert appeared, the kids and grandkids would be itching to get at their gifts. Traditionally, we opened gifts after the Christmas Eve meal (Wigilia), which was not eaten until the first star appeared. On overcast days, we guesstimated. In later years, the time was adjusted to accommodate those of us who had to travel long distances or work a full day.
The children would choose one within their group who could read (or would take turns) to scoot under the tree and proudly hand out gifts at random. Everyone would watch the opening and display of “loot” with oohs and ahs. The youngest children got first dibs.
The adults watched, laughing and talking, drinking wine or coffee or having more dessert before exchanging gifts too. We all (up to 20) squeezed into mom’s living-room, sitting on the furniture or on the carpet. Mom, of course, was assigned to her favourite easy chair so we could watch her opening our gifts to her. Ripped paper, ribbon and collapsed boxes were picked up immediately to minimize cleanup afterwards.
While the children played excitedly with their new toys, we female adults (quel surprise) went back into the kitchen and dining-room to clear the table, put away food, make care packages of leftovers because the fridge couldn’t contain them, wash dishes and start packing up to go home. The kiddies, tired from all the excitement and exhilaration, got bundled up and we were out the door. Another Christmas Eve of gaiety, sharing and family comaraderie was suddenly over. Those who had the farthest to travel, generally stayed the night to keep mom company after we all left.
We thought it would always be like that. Never change. Always joyful. Without a second thought.
If it wasn’t for my grandkids, I wouldn’t bother putting up a tree this year. I haven’t felt like it much for years starting when my daughter grew up and left home. Then the grandkids arrived, the first one almost eight years ago and the second one four years later. So I dressed a tree for them when they came to visit.
This year, however, it is a particularly poignant Christmas season. I’ve done little baking. Somehow, I’ve managed to get my gift shopping out of the way and ahead of schedule. I’ve even wrapped up all the presents and put them underneath the tree already. The spirit is just not with me though. We won’t be seeing Babcia this year. Tomorrow will be one year since she left us.
Even though they now have two trees, and because they don’t get to help yet, I asked if my granddaughters would like to help decorate my tree. They were so excited; I sailed on their coattails of exubruence. The four-year-old was trembling with anticipation. Her sister was more self-contained but made faces at her sibling’s animation. Usually I’m a control freak but not this year. I opened the boxes and bags of decorations and let them at it. Pretty soon, I just stood back and let them do their thing once I’d hung the higher branches.
The little one kept hanging everything she could get her hands on, (two-fisted—you’d think it was food) on one branch chattering the whole time like a wound up wind-up doll. Her sister didn’t bother correcting her but just moved things around for a more balanced look. When it came to the glass balls, though, the four-year-old was afraid to handle them. “I’m too little, she said, “they might fall and break.” Finally, with a little bolstering, she carefully hung som, got her mojo back and felt extremely proud of herself.
My daughter and her husband generally send the girls out to the other grandparents every year (since they were bor) while they decorate the house. They go all out with a zillion figurines and suchlike all over the house. My granddaughters, when they come home, are enthralled only as children can be. You know that look children have at Christmas: little mouths rounded, faces filled with awe, eyes aglow like stars, trying to take in all the MAGIC. Their very innocence and enchantment seduces me once again into the magic of this season. To children everything Christmas is phenomenal and enchanting—such colour and so many tiny lights. Even I get carried away even though I know that it’s mom’s and dad’s creativity at work but it’s their little lit faces that do it for me.
I’m so pleased I asked them to help. Now my tree is up. They shored up my Christmas spirit a little and helped me sustain a brighter outlook this year.
This year will be a different kind of Christmas. If it wasn’t for my grandchildren I would just skip it, stay home, curl up on the couch and hibernate till it’s over. But what would be the point? After all, they are making it special this year..